16 mins read

Feature by Harvard L.

This is an unexpected opportunity to delve into a backburner project of mine which I never thought was going to come to light. A few months ago I was having fun with 51 Classic Games for Nintendo Switch (which I’m just going to call Clubhouse Games from now on) and I found it incredibly interesting how each game effectively attained its “classic” status by implementing design principles in a unique way. I was going to do a ludology analysis of each of these games, thinking of ways to improve the bad ones (I had already designed a “fixed” version of War) and discussing why regardless of how good or bad the game really is, there is some lasting cultural relevance which helped the game endure through time.

But speaking of cultural relevance, it’s been months since Clubhouse Games came and went and the project never came to fruition, and each time I sat down to continue working on it I felt like the effort was getting futile. The game had fallen off the media cycle, and so on and so forth. But then 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel came out, and I glimpsed the parallel dimension in which all my research actually amounted to something. This game is wild, and a perfect starting point to discuss game design theory.

5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel is exactly what its title implies – it’s a regular game of chess, but in addition to moving your pieces on a two-dimensional plane, you can also send your pieces backwards through time, and across to hypothetical parallel universes. Getting a checkmate, anywhere, anyhow, ends the game immediately. The only thing more incredible than actually playing this game is describing the mechanics of how checkmates occur: for example, in one of the earliest attempts, my opponent created a parallel universe to escape my rook, and then sent their duplicate king to the original timeline: so now we were playing two games of chess simultaneously, one in which my opponent had no kings on the board and thus could not lose. I managed to seize victory by manoeuvring a parallel universe bishop so that if it were to time travel on my next turn, it would land on top of one of the opponent’s kings, presumably creating a spatial paradox within which my CPU opponent is now permanently banished.

To explain why that’s even more mind-blowing than it sounds, we need to discuss how game systems work. In modern times we usually define “game” as an interactive experience designed by someone for a player to interact with. But if we work with the broader economics definition, a “game” is any closed system where players agree to prior rules of interaction, and players take actions or make choices within those rules to achieve a pre-determined win or lose state.

If you take the game of soccer as an example; the predetermined rules are that a certain number of players are on the field divided equally into two teams, a single ball is in play at all times, and players need to move the ball to their team’s designated goal without using their hands. Players agree before playing that the win-state is having more points than the opposing team when the game time (agreed upon by both players) runs out. But if a random person were to suddenly toss a basketball onto the field, and a player picked up the basketball and hurled it into their own team’s goal, suddenly it’s not a game of soccer anymore. Once the rules that everyone agreed upon are not being followed, the game ceases to exist.

This is a fantastic framework to understand when looking at chess, a game in which learning “how to play” and learning “how to win” are fundamentally different things. Here, “how to play” means knowing that the rook moves in straight lines and the bishop moves in diagonals. Knowing “how to play” chess is knowing how to create and stay within the system of rules that keeps the game existing for both players. “How to win” encompasses strategies like how and when to move your rook and bishop to set up advantages for yourself, or disadvantages for your opponent. It’s wholly possible to know “how to play” and yet not know “how to win”.

I would argue that this is the primary factor that makes chess a relatively inaccessible game compared to something like soccer. While soccer rewards physical expertise and beginning players can use common sense to intuit that more successful players are faster, have better technique, and understand the macro strategy, chess is a purely intellectual exercise. Playing and losing at soccer feels like practice, playing and losing at chess does not.

But the saving grace of chess is that it is a measurably finite system. Even though there are a huge amount of possible moves that one can make in the opening ten turns of chess, that huge amount is a fixed number which can never get any bigger. Over the years that chess has remained popular, people have recognised certain patterns of play which have certain effects, and given these names to help newer players learn the ropes (you’ll often hear experts talk about “openings”, for example). Ultimately, by brushing up on the required reading, and learning to recognise the patterns of each opening, any person can learn how to win at chess. The barrier of entry is that some time needs to be spent either learning about the game in an abstract fashion, or losing over and over.

By introducing time travel and parallel universes, this notion is tipped straight on its head. There is a game design theory surrounding complexity, governing that any number sufficiently large enough that an average player cannot comprehend, may as well just be infinity. And that’s how I would describe the opening ten moves of a game of 5D Chess.

The giddy joy which comes from a shared game of 5D Chess is that, with each subsequent use of the time travel mechanic, the game’s complexity increases for both players. It’s a dynamic which isn’t explored at all in other head-to-head multiplayer games: in everything from regular chess, soccer, Starcraft or Street Fighter, the parameters of the game are set the second both players sit down and agree to play. But in 5D Chess, the game’s parameters are theoretically limitless: the game can continue to expand and expand and expand, containing multitudes of concurrently iterating games of chess until, finally, it reaches the event horizon where one player can’t fully grasp the ramifications of their myriad board states and subsequently commits a fatal error.

My complaint with the classic two-dimensional chess is that there are fundamentally two ways to lose: you can either lose in the long term because of your opponent’s superior overarching strategy, or you can lose in the short term because you did something dumb (usually with your queen). But in the grotesquely multiplying tendrils of 5D Chess’s parallel timelines, there is no such thing as an overarching strategy in the long term: no human being could comprehend something that convoluted. So instead, the metagame becomes about out-strategising your opponent in the short term, before they can successfully turn the game into an intricate mess, or trying to outlast your opponent before one of you loses control and makes a fatal mistake.

The developers of 5D Chess realise that they’ve taken Chess, an abstraction of military strategy on a level playing field, and turned it into a messy, labyrinthian sequence of Pandora’s Boxes which players take turns opening until one can’t handle it anymore. The developers realised that whereas the original chess creates situations, 5D Chess creates stories. My favourite feature of the game’s current build is the Checkmate feature – once a game ends, a little red bubble appears to inform players of exactly why the current board state is a checkmate, pretty much because victory in this game tends to be accidental. Take the following example:

This game state is a checkmate because, in the upper timeline, which has advanced further into the future than the lower timeline, the second king in the top-right corner must stay where it is. When White moves their rook to occupy the same space as that king in an alternate timeline, this allows White to warp their rook on top of the opponent’s king without the opponent having any chance to respond.

This situation is presented in one of the game’s many pre-installed puzzle scenarios designed to teach players how the mechanics of the game work. The confusing part is that just as how each piece has a specific rule on how it can move in the 2nd dimension, it similarly has rules on how it moves in the 4th and 5th dimensions. Rooks can only move in straight lines, which means they can only warp to the same spot they occupy. Knights can move in L shapes, which means they can time-travel back 1 segment and land 2 squares away from their original location, or time travel back 2 segments and land 1 square away from their original location. Bishops move in diagonals and to be fully honest I still don’t quite get how their time travel rules work… and don’t even get me started on the queen. 5D Chess is a game aided by its digital nature – valid moves are highlighted in green and invalid moves are physically impossible to perform, so after a while players will pick up the patterns naturally, even if they’re harder to describe.

The result of this is that while Chess might have a hypothetical Venn diagram of “how to play” and “how to win” comprised of two circles that just barely touch, 5D chess’s Venn diagram simply doesn’t exist. How do you even start to develop patterns and plans in a game which is infinitely complex? In one game you’ll be fending off four knights in one timeline and boxing in two kings with three rooks in another. The question of “how to win” is laughable – which is the most incredible thing: within the fact that you can’t properly play this beast, lies the potential for genuine fun.

Will 5D Chess catch on? Well, while I hope the developers enjoy as much success as they can, I don’t personally see metagames and a competitive scene forming around a game that demands superhuman cognition. But in the first few attempts at trying to wrestle your head around the game’s physics – the first few incredible games where you fend off your opponent’s time travelling bishop assassins, and send a hit-squad of upgraded pawns into your opponent’s weakest timeline – those are unforgettable stories which could only have existed within the beauty of a system so complex that continued exposure to it eventually stops at the limits of our puny flesh-brains. Unlike Chess, 5D Chess with Multiverse Time Travel is a limitless well of possibility. And it’s a fantastic thought experiment to prove that, if a game is adequately ridiculous in its difficulty, the act of losing can be just as much fun as winning.

And now that the cat’s out of the bag, I guess you’ll have to stay tuned from my next long-form analysis on why “Ludo is good, actually”.

– Harvard L.

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